The Dark Side of Promises

A couple years back, I endured an intense level of anguish because of a perceived promise. It felt like my heart was ripped out of my body and thrown into a river, where it floated far, far out to sea. I never found it again. I just had to grow a new heart, that’s all – a different one.

How did this happen?

Supposedly, I broke a promise that I’d made several years back – one I still don’t recall making, but which was perceived on the other person’s part. In fact, the only real promise I did make was to be fully myself and fully honest.

What is a promise, anyway?

To most people in the world, a promise stands for a sort of vow. When you promise, you are swearing to never do otherwise than your promise. Then, if you break it, you are a bad and untrustworthy person. This means others have the right to shame, shun and abandon you.

To me, a promise stands for a deep hopeful feeling in the moment. It’s a sentiment of how we wish things could be forever, but deep down everybody knows that life is very long and complicated and nothing will necessarily last, even though our hearts and minds feel immortal.

And what is a vow?

A vow is a super-charged promise, which is a super-charged intention.

An intention is an emotional, mental and spiritual goal that develops from a deep sense of purpose and attachment to someone or something.

Creating a vow from an intention is a way of attempting to make an intention reach stasis; that is, vows don’t allow for intentions to change.

It’s not that I think making a vow is a stupid or meaningless thing; however, I do believe it can produce quite detrimental results if you should fail at keeping it.

Somewhere along the lines of my own life journey, I’ve learned to stop making promises. Too many times, I’ve had someone hold power over me because of a promise, where in the end it was not me they wanted to see, know or understand – they just wanted a promise kept. They wanted me to see how I had failed, due to breaking the promise.

But these three – seeing, knowing and understanding – make up the basis of true intimacy, in my mind and in my experience. And too often the promise, as it turns out, is about someone else’s requirement that I provide security and stasis for them; in other words, that I never change.

This brings me to the reason I’m cautious when I hear about people making vows and promises to each other. The thing is, these types of declarations always beg for permanence.

“Do not change,” a vow asks.

“Do not grow beyond my growth,” says the one wanting a promise delivered.

“Ensure that you are never fully in touch with how you feel, what you want, your own identity, goals, dreams or personhood if it threatens me,” warns the vow, “Or else I’ll leave you and our relationship will be over.”

Most often, promises and vows are declared to cement the permanence of a relationship. Once the words are spoken, they’re virtually inescapable. They grow and morph into more than an intention or an ideal; they turn into a cage. If you grow – or threaten to grow – beyond the bars of that cage, you’re threatened with tragic loss.

To keep a vow, in other words, you must undertake a lifetime of conforming to the limits of the vow. This is perfectly fine, if you can guarantee the following:

  1. You’ll never receive a different kind of message from God/Spirit/intuition to do anything else, or walk a different path.
  2. You agree forever to abide by your vow, as opposed to your own gut & personal intuition.
  3. You prize loyalty to the vow above any other priority, including but not limited to truth, freedom, agency, and emotional health and safety.
  4. You will not change.
  5. You will ask the vowing partner not to change.
  6. You will only grow spiritually if your partner agrees with it and grows too.
  7. You will feel ashamed and horrible if you ever break the vow.

All of the above, in my humble opinion, seem impossible and deeply insecure, not to mention mentally and emotionally unhealthy. 

This is because the only true path to peace and complete acceptance is to practice compassionate non-attachment. It is to realize once-and-for-all that life is impermanence. Life is full of cycles, change, degradation, destruction and reconstruction. 

No one else can guarantee your security in this existence.

No set of words will assuage the fundamental anxiety of impending death (this is known as ontological anxiety, among the philosophical crowd).

No vow creates an ultimate reality that excludes change.

And, no other person can bring you contentment if you don’t already somehow possess it within your own heart. The most a vow can give you is some sort of blind reassurance.

The only functional vow is that of letting go. If you promise that you’ll always try to view things with new eyes – including your friends and family; if you swear to let go of any requirement that this world or another person make you eternally happy; if you embrace the fact of your ongoing displeasure and discomfort . . . The paradox is that only this kind of vow ever bring full contentment.

Only letting go allows you to see and love what is, rather than what you want it to be.

When we relinquish all control, in fact we find that a promise is nothing more than an emotional expression of gratitude at what’s already given, in the moment and for however long, as a gift from the cosmos.

Grasping at such a gift, holding it too close or too tightly, produces the opposite effect of breeding stagnation, boredom, emotional co-dependency, mental illness and even, at worst, bitterness.

Better to be innocent, undemanding and curious. Ask what newness will come, and explore it from all angles, rather than pushing it away to honour a vow you’ve made.

Truthfully, that kind of honour is nothing more than an ongoing demand that stifles the fresh courage of the heart, and deafens us to the call of the divine voice of intuition when it ventures to speak.

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